Last year sometime, I became aware that the novel The Martian was coming out as a movie starring Matt Damon. (I think it’s worth noting here that I’ve enjoyed pretty much everything I’ve seen him in, while acknowledging that he can be an idiot¹)
(Please note that I’m using the teaser trailer instead of the official trailer, simply because I like it better)
Now, while I’m mainly a genre romance reader, I occasionally will read other stuff, if it looks interesting enough, so I promised myself that I would try to read the book before watching the movie (and I did buy the digital version shortly after that post). Unfortunately, I was still in the throes of the reading slump from hell, and the novel still languishes in the TBR pit of despair.
However, a lovely friend made it possible for me to watch (and re-watch) the movie. Here are my thoughts.
Quick and dirty summary: it’s sometime in the future, where manned space missions to Mars are not just possible, there’s an ongoing series of them. One such mission has to be aborted early on (basically, because shit happens.) And (because shit happens), an astronaut, our eponymous Martian, is left for dead.
Hijinks, obviously, ensue.
The movie deals with first two, then three, simultaneous storylines: what happens in Mars, what happens on Earth, what happens on the Hermes, and how the different people involved–and people who are not involved in any way–react to what is going on.
First, Mark Watney is not dead.
Second, beyond the element of time, there are limited resources to, you know, go pick him up. From money to political capital to public goodwill, NASA is walking a tightrope.
There are no villains here, only people faced with nigh impossible choices: do you let one man die, or do you order five other people to risk their lives on a rescue mission with limited probability of success? How do you justify either decision–to yourself first, then to others?
Seriously, you don’t really need to add a lot to this mix to make for gripping drama.
Now, what I know about the actual science involved in space travel, let alone prolonged space missions, would probably fit on the head of a pin with plenty of room to spare, so I’m not going to go into the potential effects of radiation, the feasibility of farming Earth crops on Mars’ gravity, and so on and so forth². I take it as a given that a lot of the science works, a lot of it does not work, and some of it is ridiculous (a bit more on this last bit below).
What truly matters to me here is characterization, and here Matt Damon’s performance drives the movie. He completely sold me Mark Watney as a resourceful, self-reliant, grounded human being. He doesn’t over sell either the humor nor the desperation the character has to feel. Instead, he conveys a deep, to-the-bone determination: I’ll fight to survive, and I’ll keep fighting to survive, despite anything and everything:
“It’s space, it doesn’t cooperate. You are going to say, ‘this is it, this is how I end.’ You can either accept that, or you can get to work.”
All that said, the rest of the characters both give context and, in a very real way, enhance Damon’s performance, by providing a contrast. And, let’s face it, that cast? Perfection. Seriously, so much talent, it truly exploded in waves off the screen. Jeff Daniels is utterly convincing as NASA’s director; the guy who has to make those difficult decisions–and live with them. Sean Bean as the guy who puts his career on the line to do what he believes is right. Chiwetel Ejiofor as the guy looking at the big picture, while keeping his eye on the details. (I’ll stop here, I could go on and on and on.)
Here, bullet point of the details that make this movie work so well for me:
- There are a few non-white actors in important roles, and, with one exception, they don’t cater to racial stereotypes: Michael Peña is Ares III’s pilot and second in command, Chiwetel Ejiofor is NASA’s Mars mission director, and Donald Glover is an astrophysicist.
- Out of six astronauts, there are two WASP males, one Mexican American, one white German, and two–count’em, two!–women, though both are white.
- One of the women is the freaking mission commander, and she’s neither a robot nor a bitch. (As an aside, Jessica Chastain totally rocks the role.)
- Two of the astronauts are loving, involved, parents (yes, despite going off to space for months at a time), and this is simply part of who they are, not used as motivation for the character nor manipulator of the audience.
- Whether or not the science actually holds, the audience at least knows the characters’ rationale for what they do, and how they do it. There’s very little, “just go with it,” in the movie.
- There are a number of quirky little vignettes that reinforce the humanity of the different characters (I’m thinking here of a brief aside between the Vincent Kapoor and Mindy Park characters, where they are trying to interpret Mark’s state of mind from a one sentence message.)
- Humans are presented as overwhelmingly decent, caring beings who not only feel empathy but act on it.
- Science is demystified in a very real way; it becomes a series of problems/questions to be faced and solved, in ways that have practical, tangible applications.
Does that mean it’s a perfect movie?
No, there’s plenty of legitimate criticism to be made.
As I mentioned before, the cast is still overwhelmingly white and male. While I’m sure this is the reality at NASA today, the movie is set far enough in the future to allow for a lot more racial, ethnic, gender identity, etc. diversity in casting. The exception in non-stereotypical casting by a minority that I mentioned above? Benedict Wong as director of the Jet Propulsion Lab–the one Asian in the main cast has to be successful in technology. Another stereotype was encapsulated in a brief scene involving NASA’s public relations director: she’s not only the only woman present, but of course she’s the only one who doesn’t get the Lord of the Rings reference. (Seriously????) Finally, a couple of the space walk sequences, and the climactic rescue, deviate from the realism (for lack of a better term) of the rest of the story, and seem to me to be glaring concessions to a perceived need for thrilling heroics.³
And will ALL that said, in balance, this is a very good movie, a very good science fiction film, and well worth repeated watching.
~ * ~
¹ I don’t find Salon to the be most reliable source for anything, but I like this article:
“But meritocracy is a myth. The United States was not built on a system of meritocracy. It was built on a system of denied access. Let us not forget that a whole race of people was legal barred from learning to read in this country until 1865.
“Not only do Matt Damon’s statements reflect a troubling belief in the myth of meritocracy, but they also betray a troubling belief in notions of racial colorblindness. Many White men are taught to believe that they can tell any story well that they choose to tell. Whiteness, particularly white maleness, is situated as marker of universality. The experiences of people of color are marked as too particular to be universal. The idea that our experiences of race and gender shape and inform how we perceive narratives and how we tell stories, makes many, many people uncomfortable.”
² After all, others better qualified have done it already.
³ As I said, I have yet to read the book, but I sincerely hope that at least that last ridiculous sequence between Mark Watney and Commander Lewis does not appear in the novel.